Jun 30, 2010

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a relatively new name in the genre, but obviously one to pay close attention to. His debut, The Windup Girl, won first the Nebula for best novel, and then - just a few days ago - the Locus for best debut novel. It is also a finalist for the Hugo, and in my personal opinion fully deserves to win.

The Windup Girl is a "biopunk" story, set in a world where Global Warming has raised the sea levels and Carbon fuel sources are almost depleted. Biotechnology is the dominant science, and its forerunners are the "Calorie Companies" - megacorporations that control most of the world through the iron grip of food production. No natural sources of food could survive the engineered plagues and pests that ravage the ecosystem, and only the Calorie Companies have the knowledge and resources to stay ahead of unstoppable mutations, various new strains and their rivals' newest bio-threats. To add insult to injury, most of those threats are deadly to humans as well, and so people live in constant fear of plague and starvation.

The story is set in the city of Bangkok in the Thai Kingdom - one of the last countries thriving without the help of the Calorie Companies whose representatives are forbidden to set foot on its soil. The Thai possess an unimaginable treasure - a seedbank holding specimens of the extinct natural flora - and the megacorporations want to get their hands on this genetic wealth. But the triumvirate running the Kingdom - the Somdet Chaopraya, regent of the Child Queen; General Pracha, head of the Environmental Ministry; and Akkarat, leader of the Trade Ministry - are holding the threats at bay.

Into this tapestry are woven the stories of five characters. Anderson Lake, an agent of one of the Calorie Companies, trying to find a way into the seedbank; Hock Seng, an illegal "yellow card" immigrant - survivor of the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese - who works as Lake's secretary in the factory he uses for a cover; Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the "Tiger of Bangkok", an idealist captain of the White Shirts (the enforcement wing of the Environmental Ministry), who becomes involved in the intrigues between General Pracha and Minister Akkarat; his lieutenant and protegee, Kanya, who is not what she seems to be. And the Windup Girl herself - Emiko - a Japanese "New People" construct, the product of a race that grows its soldiers, workers, secretaries and geishas in vats. Called "Windups" because of the tell-tale stutter-stop motions built in their genomes, the New People are the spine of Japanese economy. Bred to be the perfect secretary and companion, Emiko serves her master unquestioningly, her whole being designed to be submissive. But when it turns out that a ticket for her return trip to Japan would cost more than for her master to just buy a new secretary when he gets home, she is abandoned in Bangkok - a place where her very existence is an abomination, where she hasn't even got the right to live, and where her extremely smooth, almost pore-less skin leads to constant overheating. Her condition is exploited by a man named Rileigh, who uses her as entertainment in his brothel.

Their stories intertwine, while building tensions threaten to drown the city in a civil war between the warring factions of the government. Bacigalupi paints a picture of an irreparably damaged world that tries to get back on its feet while malicious forces strive to control the lives of billions with biotechnological monopoly. After the "Contraction", following the collapse of Western Civilization, the time has come for a new Expansion, and the Calorie Companies would direct it if given the chance. But evolution has taken a new course, and in this ever changing nightmarish reality the only ones who cling to the old order are the humans themselves.

The Windup Girl is a warning environmental tale of what could happen after the depletion of fossil fuels, and where development of bioengineering may lead us. Not all technologies are overly believable (the kink-springs for example take some disbelief suspending), and most characters give out mixed signals to say the least (when they aren't outright scheming opportunists), but somehow it all works in concert with the magnificent world-building, making Bacigalupi's debut novel a brilliant work of Science Fiction, and one that really deserves all the praise it's been getting.


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